Just playing?

This post is part of the Just playing series inspired by Childcentralstation.

Instead of us telling you about play – YOU are invited to watch play at its best. Observe the pictures and tell us: What do you see?

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What is happening in the photos?
Who are the players?
What materials are present?
What are the developmental values embedded – possibly – in the scenarios?
Why is any of this play important?

Three kids age 1, 2 and 3 discovered this gutter and small stones today. The obvious thing to do was… well throw the stones down the gutter. At the bottom was some rainwater left from the previous rainy days. They simply couldn’t stop.

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All three of them just played and made their own experiences. The stones. The holes. The water. Sounds.

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I almost forgot to mention a 35year old enjoying this play by simply watching the kids. Feel their experiences. Hear the sounds, the laughter, the joy.

Were they really just playing?

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Can you still play?

We have talked a lot about play. And about how children play. What they use to play and why. Some of you may have noticed this already – we could go on forever. But right now we want to invite you to do something different –  simply sit back for a while and just observe, but not just your children, observe yourself when you were a child. Magda Gerber talked so much about the ability to observe our children, the importance of observation in understanding them and in building a relationship. Surely this applies not only to children. So how about we observe ourselves for a while? Let’s start from the very beginning – let’s travel back in time.

So let‘s do this. Let‘s sit back. And let‘s talk about us for a moment.

How did you play when you were a child ?

What is the first thing that pops into your mind when you think about fun childhood memories?
What did you enjoy most?
Who did you play with? Your siblings, friends, parents? Or your imaginary friends only?

Maybe if we all do this once in a while, we will look at our children play a little differently. Maybe we will join more often, instead of making sure that their shoelaces are tied properly, or that their hands are washed… maybe even we will be able to discover something in this observation we had long forgotten about? Or perhaps we will be able to work on our relationship with ourselves a bit more? After all, it all starts with observation.

So, close your eyes. Come on, you know you want to do this J Let yourself go back into your childhood. Where are you? What are you doing? And most importantly – are you having fun?

When I think back I see myself in my grandparent‘s garden. It‘s the place of my childhood. Whenever I smell freshly cut grass I am in this huge garden at the end of that small village. Where all you heard all day was dogs barking, chicken and the occasional tractor going by. I see myself walking around on big wooden stilts I got from our neighbor. I see myself collecting tons of acorns from the huge acorn trees or watching the sky from the swing that hung underneath the big nut tree. I am eating carrots I just dug out and I am feeding the rabbits. I am busy wandering around the many sheds that contained soooo many old things I tried to figure out what they were. It was a whole fantastic world of fantastic things and I loved making my own mind up about everything I saw and did.

It took me a while to see what I did when I wasn‘t there. When I was at home in the city living in an apartment block that is so typical for the former East. All I can see myself do there is draw, read or write. Or hang out with my friend who lived three storeys above.

I cannot think of unhappy times. Not during my childhood. Whenever I see myself do things I mentioned above I see a happy girl doing what she loves and enjoys. And a warm breeze of joy overcomes me writing this down. (Nadine)

***

I’m in the tree. I’m so high up I don’t really care anymore (funny, now I am afraid of heights) I can’t see or hear what is going on down below. We climb as high as we can with my cousin and then we rush down as quickly as our legs and arms let us. Finally, we end up lying in the grass under the tree, laughing so hard we can hardly catch a breath. I hear my son laugh like that now sometimes when he runs around – is it only in connection with movement that we can laugh so hard? I remember trees and grass and hay and us running around or jumping or just lying and looking in the sky. I remember the taste of stolen apples and strawberries – picked from the field right next to our grandma’s, even though she had the same strawberries and apples. Hiding from the neighbor who pretended to be angry. We were only alone if we chose to be, and there was always someone ready for another big adventure – a walk after dark, following some older cousins to see what they were up to. There was always some mistery around the corner.(Anna)

Sometimes we wonder too much about what and how our children play. Are the toys appropriate? Are the games educational? Are they hanging out with the ‘right’ kind of friends? Maybe going back to our own memories can help us understand the play of our children.

But wait! This is about us right?

“In psychology and ethology, play is a range of voluntary, intrinsically motivated activities normally associated with recreational pleasure and enjoyment.“ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Play_(activity))

So when does pleasure and enjoyment overcome you? Now – as an adult? Is it similar to what you enjoyed as a child? Or has it changed? And if so – when? How?

“What did you do as a child that made hours pass like minutes? Herein lies the key.” ~Carl Jung

I had a flashlight I used when I hid under blankets at night and read and read and read. And then, right next to my books there were notebooks filled with poems, stories, both finished and unfinished. I don’t have a flashlight for reading anymore, but I do fall asleep with a book more than once a week. And as for writing? Well, here I am :) (Anna)

***

Considering writing on 5 different blogs I think writing is my greatest passion. This is when I feel big volcanoes of pleasure and enjoyment overcome me. When I feel free and happy. If I‘d be able I would do that and nothing else for a living. And I still like doing things on my own. Enjoying the world and nature around me. So for me not much has changed despite the fact that time is limited. (Nadine)

Quite often when we think about our childhood we think about the relationship between our parents and us. Especially when we have children of our own we look at how things were back then and how we do them now. We hardly ever take time to really travel back in time and remember. But maybe this can help us understand ourselves better. Seeing who we were and what we did. What we loved and enjoyed. And if we had forgotten – maybe do those things again and see if they feel the same now? And surely, if we can understand ourselves a bit better, we can understand our children better as well?

I still love sitting on swings watching the sky and trees above me. But I am getting old and therefore sick on swings so the joy isn‘t lasting. (Nadine)

We have talked about us. Now it‘s your turn. Travel back and then tell us! We are curious to know what really mesmerized you when you were little! What was it that made hours pass like minutes? What put the biggest smile on your face?

Tell us if you want to… or perhaps, tell you children one day :)

Nadine & Anna

Catch me if you can – Diaper changing with a mobile infant

In our last post we talked about how to build a relationship with our newborn and infant on the changing table, what helps us to really connect and enjoy these many many moments together so that our child can then “go off and play“ happily afterwards. And while this all may have sounded doable it won‘t take long until your infant gets mobile. Turns onto his belly. Crawls. Stands up. And literally walks away from you… 

We are facing two new challenges now. Not just will we sometimes find it difficult to wrap a diaper around our child while he turns over and around. It won‘t be as simple as picking him up and taking him to the changing table either. Chasing each other around the room surely becomes a famous game now. So what to do?

Have fun

As much as the diaper needs to be changed now – don‘t forget to have fun. Crawling or running away is not a sign of an uncooperative child. It‘s play. It‘s fun. And why not start a diaper change with some joy and laughter ?

Yes. Diaper changes are about quality time together. About closeness and connection. About paying attention to each other. But that doesn‘t mean it can‘t start a few minutes earlier during play. As long as it is clear that the diaper change is what is on the menu next. Play. Have fun but make clear “Ok this is fun and I see you really want to continue playing, but I need to change your diaper now. Do you want to go to the changing table yourself or do you want me to carry you over?“

Cooperation is thus a two way street – we expect the child to answer to our invitation, but we have to be able to do the same. That is, while changing a diaper should clearly be about changing the diaper (and not about playing peek-a-boo), if the child invites us to play with him for a while we should also be able to accept this invitation, this way showing him we also want to cooperate with him. Surely if you look at it this way, you can imagine the child who is more mobile would be thinking along similar lines: “My mum does not cooperate with me the way she used to during diaper changes.” 

Stay in touch

Eye contact seems to get lost a lot during a diaper change. We are often so busy cleaning and wiping around our child‘s most intimite area, closing tiny buttons or holding those moving legs out of the way that we forget to actually stay in touch with our children. But if we want them to listen to us and to be with us – Cooperate – WE have to greet them first. So keep looking up. Draw the attention back to where you are and what you are doing. Mumbling the next step into the socks of your child will not make him feel as if you are talking to him or actually really waiting for his cooperation.

While starting a game of rolling over or trying to move away your child is showing that he is actually having fun up there with you. That he likes and enjoys those special times with you. But children easily get drawn into those games. Bringing them back to the changing table and the actual situation can help bringing you two back together. A gentle touch (maybe placing your hand on his chest) and eye contact interrupts this game and calms him down. You can then take it from there again.

Slow down even more

It is important to slow down and be gentle and calm with a newborn. Makes sense to us, doesn’t it. But with a moving and mobile infant we tend to follow his movements and his pace. Quite often when it becomes wild our hands become wild to. Even hectic. We wanna be quick and get the diaper on before he moves over again. Instead of staying in touch we are losing touch here. Losing our connection.
It helps to breathe a moment. Hold on, maybe close your eyes (if your child is safe). Calm yourself and then get back in touch.

Grow together

As the baby grows and begins to be more mobile, the interactions on the changing table on the one hand need to grow with the baby, but on the other – the underlying principle needs to remain the same. We are here to do something together, I am here to guide you, but this is a cooperative activity.

When our child turns onto his belly – we carefully turn him back onto his back. We may comment on it „You turned around. You like doing this. But I need you to stay on your back for a little so I can put on a new diaper.“

Remember that the child is developing. Instead of insisting on doing things a certain way – try and develop with him.

I remember raising the issue of Leander not wanting to lie on his back while being changed anymore. And how to get him to do so. Our family counsellor looked at me, smiled and said: “Leander has just learned to stand up. He has achieved a major milestone. He does not want to lie on his back anymore. Can you imagine changing him while standing?“ I couldn‘t but smile back and nod. I had difficulties changing him while standing up with our cloth diapers. But when he was able to develop so fast, to master those gross motor milestone, why should I stand still and not continue trying to develop myself too ? (Nadine) 

Obedience vs. Cooperation 

A common comment seems to be that “my child does not cooperate the way he used to”. Do we really mean he does not cooperate? Or do we simply mean he does not obey, or he is not acting in a way we are accustomed to, and expect him to… but is that the basis of cooperation? Perhaps we should redefine ‘cooperation’?

Therefore if we see the child as our active partner in all activities, ‘we do not always expect him to do what we want [...], but if we cooperate, the child from the beginning learns to want to cooperate with us’ (Anna Tardos, Amsterdam lecture, March 2013)

So what were you most challenging moments on the changing table ? What sort of games did your child come up with ? We’re always excited to hear your stories.
Nadine & Anna

Free Play

Over the past few weeks we have been having conversations with lots of people about what it really means to play freely, and what free play is. And why it’s so important. And how to make sure our babies get lots of it. And maybe that we get some ourselves. And why… Can you tell this is one of our favourite things to talk and write about?

More and more research is being published (and hopefully much more is being conducted) that talks about the value of play for children’s development, learning and later life choices. There are many ways to talk about and define play. Our understanding of Free Play comes from the work of Dr Emmi Pikler and later Magda Gerber. And it seems we need to clarify what we mean by this :)

What is Free Play?

We believe there are three key elements to this kind of play – three things that identify play as free:

  • It is self-initiated. Humans have the innate need to play. Babies seem to know what they want to play with, how they want to go about it, and what challenges they are ready for. Self-initiated play means allowing the baby to start their own play in their own way. Without suggesting the toys, placing a new rattle in their tiny hand. Sounds easier than it is done, and we have found this one to be particularly hard for a lot of people, especially parents of newborns and small infants – we often, almost intuitively, want to entertain, to provide, to suggest and to offer toys. If instead we let our babies explore on their own, we can find that what they see as play is not what we would do at all – but we can so easily get drawn into their incredible world of discovery.
  •  It is self-directed. When a toddler runs to us with a cup in his hand, it is nearly impossible (Anna still learning this one!!!) not to jump up and say: ‘Oh, are we having tea?’ But maybe we’re not having tea. Maybe that cup is a flying saucer, or a duck (that’s right!), or maybe he was running to you to tell you he knows what colour it is. Here is the time to explore one of the many ways to use the magical parenting word: wait. Wait and see what happens. Wait for the discovery that your child is making right now to happen, and the joy to appear on his face. Wait for his ideas (not yours) to flourish one after another. Join in and follow, but try not to lead. Be the cast, not the director.
  • It is self-paced. When enough is enough, let it be. Try not to encourage one more try to reach that ball, one more stretch. Babies know how to set their challenges, and in time they will learn to pick their battles, and learn how important it is to know what they can and cannot do. And when. When it’s nearly time to go and they are still engrossed in play, warn them in time, so they are given a chance to finish.

Why is it so important?

If play is self-initiated, babies have a chance to discover the world at their pace. They know their bodies and their interests at any given stage better than we do – after all, they get to live with them. And by letting them choose their own play (even if sometimes we are not sure what it is they are doing, and feel like we would have a better idea of what to put on top of that basket… you know what I’m talking about :)), we are watching as they learn all about their own interests, passions, about the world around, their bodies and set up new and exciting challenges for themselves.

If play is self-directed, our kids have a chance to learn about their own interests, but also limitations. They are able to explore their imagination to its fullest, without us giving them ideas and guessing what it is they are trying to do. They are given a chance to surprise us.

If play is self-paced, we are letting them stop when they want to stop, or change direction when they need to recharge or focus on something else – they are learning when to keep going and when to move on to something else. When to take a break. And when to call it quits. We cannot learn it for them (sometimes we can learn it from them though!)

Mama Nadine just had her little baby Mona two weeks ago, and she is once again discovering the joys of watching a newborn play :) How do your babies play? What is their favourite thing to observe, explore, attempt to do right now? We LOVE to hear from you!

Anna & Nadine

The Healing Power of Play

One afternoon Antek woke up from his nap, had something to eat and went to play in his room. I peeked in to see what was going on, and I noticed he kept throwing his teddy on the floor, then picking it up and throwing it again. He doesn’t usually throw toys, so it had me wonder. I moved closer and was listening. ‘You fell down. It hurt’ he said picking the teddy from the floor. ‘Do you want a hug?’ A little break and the cycle went on again. And again, and again. Until he had enough and moved on to play with his cars. Later in the evening, my husband told me Antek had fallen down on the playground and cried for quite a long time – nothing major happened, but clearly it had upset him quite a lot.

It is often difficult for children to express what they feel. It is probably often difficult for adults, as well. But there is a lot going on emotionally we are working through all the time, and we need tools to deal with it. For children, one of these tools can be FREE PLAY. Free, that is self-initiated, self-led and uninterrupted (as intended by Dr Emmi Pikler and Magda Gerber). Of course going through big emotions more often than not requires our (adults’) help. Again, it does not mean to leave the children alone at all times, and let them figure out the world without our guidance – it simply means to be sensitive to when and how to allow play to be a healing tool without jumping right in with our assumptions and expectations.

Given time and space, children, scratch that – people, who are nurtured and whose needs are met, can on a lot of occasions work through their own problems in their own play. Or in their own way. We talk, if we can. We doodle on a piece of paper for hours. We kick things. We scream. We run, or go outside. We lie in the grass, go hug trees, go for a swim. Kids also work through their emotions in a way which helps them cope and understand.

If nobody steps in to stop or ‘help’ in the process, the play itself can sometimes become a self-organized therapeutic tool. There were definitely some emotions with Antek falling down that day. He got hurt. He didn’t like it. He was surprised how much his knee hurt. Had anyone stepped in to stop the throwing, or to ask what happened, the process of going through this could have been stopped.

We have both seen it happen with our children, and time and time again it is incredible to see how capable they are in working through their feelings, fears and doubts. How does the healing power of play work, when we look at FREE PLAY as a tool for dealing with emotions? Here are two things we have noticed:

Understanding and re-living reality

In one of the videos from the Pikler home, there is a scene with one little boy who keeps hiding his toys up really high, where he can barely reach them. He then walks away, looks at the shelf, and comes back to try and reach for the toys. He does that several times, always making sure he cannot see them, and then always returning to make sure they are there.

This little boy, we were told, had not been there for too long. It was still the time when Pikler home was an orphanage. His parents, who could not care for him at the time, came to visit him every week for a little while. After they’d left, he immediately went to play his ‘game’ of hide-and-seek.

Why is this interesting? Perhaps because of the amazing connection this little boy was making between his parents disappearing every week, to appear in the next. Perhaps this game helped him to understand reality, and reassured him that things that go out of sight can be brought back. Perhaps he was testing the permanence of objects, which had affected his life to such a great extent – his parents were constantly in and out of his sight, after all.

Practicing to deal with fear

We have already talked about Antek’s fear of planes, and how he managed to combat it by practicing getting into and out of the plane, sitting down, preparing his bag (http://mamas-in-the-making.com/2012/10/our-boys-and-their-toys/). Going over some things children are afraid of, or have doubts about, often appears in play as a way of making them familiar.

A lot of our fears are born out of a fear of the unknown. If we know what is coming, we can prepare – which is why talking to our babies (even very small) through the events of daily life helps so much in the long run – it makes the world a little more predictable, and through that, less scary.

In their play we often see children doing something over and over, repeating certain actions – sometimes we can make a clear connection to a real-life event (like getting on a plane, or going to the doctor), and sometimes it is too abstract for us to see. But if we manage to allow our babies to develop the habit of free play, they will also use it to deal with their fear of the unknown – by finding their own ways of making it known and familiar.

Have you noticed your child dealing with emotions, fears, or reliving past events in their play? We love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More reading:

Janet Lansbury talks about ways to encourage free play as a tool for self-therapy here.

 

 

 

The urge to play

Our boys are now over two. A lot has changed since they were born, and their life (and our too) has been influenced by many wonderful people, ideas and thoughtful conversations. One thing that never changes – we still love watching them play, and we still admire how much is hidden under this one tiny umbrella term – PLAY. Learning, discovery, experimenting, mastering, hypothesizing, trying out, compromising… you name it, it is all there – in their play. Here and here we talked about what play looks like for children until 1. So, what do toddlers do when they play?

Well basically – Play can be divided in two. On one hand children play to follow their needs. They are driven by some inner urge that is almost impossible to resist. On the other hand – there are the toys that mainly we provide. And the child, following Heinrich Jacoby, asks: ,Thing – what do you want from me?‘ and explores what he can do with it.

In this post we want to talk about the first part of play – the one driven by needs and urges. All the things that are so important for our children, their healthy development and later life, that happen during play in these first years. And in the next we will have a closer look at what toys we can offer that allow a child to ask: ,What do you want from me?‘ rather than ,What am I supposed to do with that?‘

Developmental steps, schemas, needs and urges

Children at every stage of their development have certain needs that emerge within their bodies, in connection with their brain, and which they have to follow. It might be that „your toddler’s desire to climb makes you want to climb walls“, but it is not something they are doing on purpose, and asking them to stop is futile – the urge is stronger, and more importantly – it’s necessary.

I remember looking at Antek standing at the edge of a huge puddle, looking at it. You could see the struggle – he knew he could not go in, but this urge to go in was so strong, it was almost painful to watch. Finally very slowly he walked around it. (Anna)

Surely you have seen a ton of moments like this. The developmental urges are similar, only stronger – the body wants what it wants, and not only that. These are all the things that the little body needs to do, for the big body to later fare well in life. Knowing what these things are can help us in finding safe ways for our children to explore the world, do what they need to do, all the while making sure they are safe and happy. Recognizing those urges in our children’s play not only allows us to offer safe ways to fulfill their body’s needs (‘I know you want to climb, but I cannot let you climb on the table. Why don’t we go outside and find something you can climb on.’), but it also gives us as parents a unique view on their developing bodies and minds. It is easy to say that we should observe children at play, but hard to do when we don’t know what we’re looking at (http://everymomentisright.blogspot.nl/2011/09/day-in-life-of-scientist.html) – it takes time, trust and practice. Knowing a little bit more about the natural ways in which children develop gives us more joy in observing them as well.

We also believe that the best toys (or, as Magda Gerber called them – play objects) to best support toddlers in these activities are exactly the simple, open-ended toys you don’t need to spend a fortune on, some of them you might already have, and a lot of them you could even find interesting to play with (more on that in the next post)!

So, first things first, what are these urges?

Some of these actions have been well discussed and classified under the common heading schemasSchemas are all those behaviors and actions we see our children repeating over and over, in a variety of settings, using a number of different things. Sometimes they appear as a single action, sometimes a child is particularly interested in one, sometimes they are joined and combined together – like pieces of a puzzle. They are:

Transporting

Carrying things around, from place to place. Moving objects from place to place. Carrying things in your hands one at a time, or all at once. Perhaps filling a toy truck and going around with the load.

Enveloping

Covering themselves, each other, other things, hiding. Pulling a sleeve over their hand so it disappears. Playing peek-a-boo. Hiding in small spaces, maybe climbing into a box and sitting there. Or sitting under a blanket. Covering your face, their own face – this can turn into a game where you also are invited to participate

Containing

Putting things into other things and then taking them out, filling containers, putting their thumb into their mouth and taking it out. Pouring water into a cup, and then into another cup, and another… stuffing all the toys in one box, bag or basket.

Rotating

Making circular movements with things, walking around something, spinning toys, turning around, watching the washing machine.

Connection

Joining toys in a long line, joining train tracks. Making a long line of toys and then rearranging them. Putting blocks on top of one another, or in a line.

Positioning

Finding a place for something or oneself, putting things on their heads, placing things one on top of the other. Rearranging toys, books, things on the table. Perhaps putting forks next to placemats before dinner time?

Apart from these schemas, there are also things we often see our kids doing frequently – some kids will do one, some all of them, some will prefer one to the other. The things we noticed with our boys were:

Climbing

This is probably the most challenging activity for us as adults. Because children don‘t just climb onto a chair or a sofa. They move things around to climb even higher. Because we hide things from them by putting them into heights they can‘t reach. And therefore make these more attractive. (Not to mention the fear of them falling – but that is another topic we will discuss at some point later). But remember that climbing is a strong urge (see Lisa Sunbury’s post we mentioned earlier), and such an important one too! Not only for their cognitive and physical development – think of the pride and joy they can experience reaching such great heights all by themselves.

 

One morning I opened my eyes and found Leander sitting on the work surface in the kitchen. He had climbed onto the chair, from there onto the kitchen table and just another step onto the higher surface. There he was happily pouring maple syrup all over the place. I couldn‘t even be mad. I had to laugh about my own silliness of believing that ANYTHING would be safe up there. (Nadine)

Pushing and pulling 

Especially when learning to walk children quite often reach forsupport that helps them

walk. Instead of buying dangerous walkers that gain speed they can‘t control kids find themselves furnishings, boxes or big objects they can push around. Once they are able to walk it becomes more interesting to pull things. It keeps them busy and they have the feeling of actually working.

 

 

 

Gathering, collecting and categorizing

This, of course, is a development of schemas as well. Eva Kallo talks about this as a phase of development in her book ‘The Origins of Free Play’

‘In the collection process, the child discovers by searching through and choosing among various objects that there are differences among them and notices their particulars. When he compares things, he notices their shape and disparate properties, and as he puts them together, he takes care to group them according to common feature. Examination, comparison, abstracting certain properties and disregarding others, grouping them by feature, all are intellectual processes repeatedly evidenced by children engaged in collecting, whereby perception and action remain closely linked.’ (Eva Kallo, ‘The Origins of Free Play’)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the first stage of their interest in collecting, children begin to gather together toys that are identical, to later start putting them together in line, or alongside one another. At this point it is important to have more than one of something within reach or in sight. This later develops into categorizing objects, putting them into containers or in piles, depending on their shape, colour, size etc. (we talked about this also with our boys and their favourite cars. Only later on the child begins to also be interested in the result – at first you will probably see collecting to fill a box, but later he might also keep the box close by as a sign of what he has accomplished.

Knowing what these urges are, and that it would be near impossible (and also possibly harmful) to control them, helps us parents to allow our children to safely explore what they need to explore. The action in itself is most of the time not as important as the child’s need to fulfill the urge – knowing what these urges are allows us to see them as learning experience, rather than perhaps some unwanted behavior (such as climbing dangerous places, pouring water out of the cup etc.).

So before you head to the toy store – think of what is actually in your house. Or don‘t even think and let your child explore. That a laundry basket is great for climbing in and out, for putting things inside or pushing it around the room. That a shopping bag is not just for emptying but also for putting all the things back inside (you might not see much of your shopping for an hour after you got home). And that pots, bowls and Tupperware make great hats – more on that in our next post!

And before you leave the house with a toddler – make sure you have got a spare set of socks and shoes (or waterproof boots). Because these puddles ARE very very tempting!

Our boys and their toys

Recently in a parent‘s consultation we were told that Leander was reluctant to take the Montessori materials off the shelves and they asked what he was interested in playing with at home. We said: “Toy cars.“ But those are not allowed in The Children‘s House. They are not part of the Montessori Concept. In fact: They had toy cars and cards accordingly so the kids could match the cars with the cards. But all the boys did was play with the cars, not the material as it was meant to be. So they took the cars away. They also took the little London bus that served as a moneybox for which they had provided little buttons in a basket to put inside the moneybox. But as you may guess – the boys only played with the bus as a bus, not a moneybox. 

A mom on twitter recently asked: “My son (2,5) has been obsessed with sea animals for months now. He can name them all and is extremely interested. Should I leave him or should I help him take interest in something else, because it has been going on for so long now. And how can I do that?“

What is our fear when we try and move the focus of our child‘s play to something else? That he could miss out on something important? And if so – what?

There is so much to learn when you are a child that we as parents often feel the need to fill our kid‘s brain with information. Constantly. And who can blame us? As soon as we become parents we ourselves are filled with information and offered all sorts of classes and groups to attend that encourage and foster all sorts of life-important areas such as music, creativity, language, science. You name it. Parent-infant classes as Emmi Pikler or Magda Gerber ( http://www.rie.org/classes/parent-infant ) offered are questioned because the children are not given any input, no songs are sung and no activities lead. What is the point if the child is not learning anything?

What we might miss out on from the very beginning is trust. Trust in our own children, that they have it all and are able and most importantly willing to learn. Maria Montessori said: “A child cannot NOT learn.“ Whatever a child does – he is learning. It‘s just not always obvious to us adults who seem to know everything but in fact quite often – seem to know nothing. This trust is taken from us during those first days, weeks and months when we start focusing on children‘s play and age appropriate toys. Every packaging of a toy has a big bubble blown up that states what this toy is encouraging. May it be “just“ creativity or even logical and scientific thinking. And it is hard not to look at it and choose just simple play objects. In the end – everyone has it. And is amazed. So there must be something to it, right? Right?

Another reason why parents are so worried their children might miss out if not being offered early learning opportunities in all sorts of ways, is our own background. If we feel we haven‘t achieved everything we quickly project those expectations on our own children. So they at least do better in writing, spelling, math, playing an instrument or whatever. And how can this be achieved other than by attending a class that offers it all?

If you have terrible childhood memories because you had a hard time understanding math you might know how that feels. The need to offer numbers, puzzles and counting games at the earliest possibility. And in the end – if it does not help it won‘t harm either, right? Well, we’re not sure. Some experts, who have been working on the concept of play, might disagree. As long as we don‘t understand play as it really is and what it really offers to our children, we might harm them in taking those important hours from them by doing something that “has a point“. Because “The importance of play is, that it has no point.“ ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/how-childrens-play-is-being-sneakily-redefined/2011/11/15/gIQAMNjdPN_blog.html )

We might not harm them directly by offering them charts with letters to be able to read at an early age. But we harm them by not leaving them enough time and room to explore on their own. To engage with something they are interested in. And maybe even learn to read, write and count in the process – who knows? But how much more fun would it be, if this whole learning was done on their terms, while playing with their beloved cars, sea animals or tea sets?

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning. But, for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood. (Fred Rogers)

And therefore we have happily been watching our boys play with cars. But not just that. We have been trying to discover what they are actually learning by “just playing”. Because of course, just like all of the other parents out there, we are curious about what they do when they “just play”. So, is there any learning going on? Even without the special materials, and all the educational toys? We don’t know for sure, but here are some of our ideas of what might be going on. These are not based on Parten’s or Piaget’s categories, they are purely our ways of understanding what our children are doing when they… well, play

Movement – large and small

We have already talked a lot about how important movement is in development of play, and how much of movement is really play. When just playing with cars? Well, there is the pushing and pulling that can get discovered, practised, and practised again – what surfaces and slopes are better for which one? What happens when you pull the truck downhill?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

And then there are the fine, small movements, which we probably barely even think about now that we just have them all in our toolbox – opening and closing tiny doors, and putting little people (or, in A’s case – allspice) inside, taking them out, making sure they are sitting upright and that they all fit – these are all extremely precise movements of hand and fingers. Have a look at how your child is trying to manipulate something small – it really is fascinating!

Language

Car parts. Different types of cars. Different types of vehicles in general. What they do. What kinds of people drive them? What are they wearing? What do these people do? This could go on for a long while… Here we also have a unique opportunity to join in and answer all the questions – starting with pointing and a questioning look on a face of a very young baby, up to probably much much later and all the ‘how?’ and ‘why?’

The only thing we have been very careful of is not to have an agenda. If they ask what color the car is, we try and answer ‘yellow’ – not have them guess, or try and make them remember. We believe the trust the boys put in us by asking us to tell them names of things in the world needs to be respected for what it is, rather than unnecessarily tested.

Serious science

Playing with cars has been a source of some serious scientific discoveries for our boys. These are just some of them:

  • Hypothesis: Some cars, when pushed, go faster than others. Tested for the van versus the truck. Will it also be true for other cars? Which ones?
  • Hypothesis: Some cars are much bigger/ heavier/ longer than others. Tested. True, with different answers for different combinations.
  • Hypothesis: Some cars will fit into other cars. Tested for some, true for some.
  • Hypothesis: Some cars break when thrown on the floor. Tested for one. Enough proof obtained. Not willing to test on others.

And of course there are the many categories that they have been using to organize the cars – by size, speed, length, color… These discoveries are particularly engrossing; it takes hours to figure out just the right way, and is as fascinating to watch as any Discovery channel documentary. These categories, discovered on cars, sea animals, tea sets, so early on, help all of us understand life later on without going crazy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Therapeutic play

A. became scared of flying, especially take off and landing, once he turned 2 and had to be in his own seat. On our return from a first trip like that, he dug out a plane tucked neatly among his many cars. He was practising taking off and landing for a couple of days. He put his plane in the air (on the windowsill), then took one of his cars (that’s right, cars!) in his hand and proceeded to explain to the car: “You are bigger now, you will have your own seat on the plane. You can hold my hand.” I watched quietly as this play continued for another few days. We were due to take another flight in a week or so. It was much better.

 

(Also have a look here: http://www.janetlansbury.com/2011/10/the-power-of-play-therapy-and-4-ways-to-encourage-it/)

 

Fantasy play: cars aren’t always cars, you see…

… sometimes they are potatoes, when you need to go shopping and fill your bag with them; sometimes they are chopped veggies that will taste so nice for dinner tonight; sometimes they are people, or animals. They really are what you want them to be. Just like acorns can be coffee, once you put them in a cup, or a turtle can be a table when you put a cup on top of it.

Which is why it’s ok that our boys don’t have all the toys in the world – they really only need the ones they have. If they did have all those toys, would it be half the fun?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh and just maybe – social stuff?

Kind of funny, but it is also quite amazing. A. has two tractors, but only one little cart that goes on the back of the wooden tractors. I have just found out recently that the two tractors share the cart.

A. usually explains to one of the tractors that the other will now borrow the cart, but that later it will be back. Not quite what is happening on the playground yet.

 

 

So does it matter that they have been playing mostly with cars for… well, quite a while now? We’re not too worried about that, to be honest.

It doesn’t matter what you play with, but what and how you think and feel as you play. You can play intelligently with a doll […] and you can thoughtlessly read books. (Janusz Korczak)

It doesn’t matter if our boys are playing with cars, sea animals, or tea sets. What matters is how they think and feel as they play. And to let them develop in this thinking and feeling as they play, to let them discover the creative possibilities and scientific facts, we are choosing to give them the freedom to choose what they want to play with, how they want to do it, and the time and space for their explorations.

What about your children – do they have their favorite toys, or play objects? What are they? We would love to hear your thoughts!

Play at 3-6 months – Age appropriate toys

Your baby is on the move. He is crawling, rolling, looking for new possibilities and opportunities to explore. We have found this a little challenging in terms of providing the right, age-appropriate toys, that would not ruin our budgets, or limit the curiosity of our boys. Here is what seems to have worked for our little explorers.

Having spoken about swings and bouncers or activity centers and suggested to take those away in our recent post - what could you place there instead?

Maybe nothing? 

Remember that movement is play. Practicing to sit, to crawl or stand up is not just hard work. It is play after all. Nothing else is needed to help your child train those muscles or movements.

Maybe something simple?

Your child is moving around much more, this is play in itself, but there is also time when the interest in objects comes in play – right about now . You might see much more curiosity than before in reaching out and grabbing objects, checking out their different qualities, trying what can and cannot be done with them. First you may notice interest in one particular object – the simpler the object the longer time your baby is likely to spend with it. Open-ended toys, those with no purpose stimulate imagination. The toys you placed around him when he was still tiny are good for a start here!

Pick something simple and spend some time with it yourself – play! You might be surprised, but the longer time you give yourself, the more amazing and creative things you will discover about a simple wooden ring. Is it heavy or light? How does it feel in your hand? What sound does it make on the floor? What about on another object? Does it taste good? Is it pleasant to suck on it? Can you roll it? Can you thrown it? Oh look, here is another one – are they the same? Can you put them together? What if you bang them? What if you try to put one on your foot? What about the shadows it makes on the wall…….

Possibilities are endless!

A box (or laundry basket)

A very low wooden box allows children to follow their need to crawl onto or into things. The wooden box can be placed both ways around. First we would recommend to have it (in our eyes) upside down – so the baby can try and crawl onto it. Once she achieved that she will face the challenge to get back down. Therefore the box should be not too high. It can be an old drawer or an easily timbered box. Whatever you have on offer. The box can be extended with a ramp where the child can crawl up (and down). All these movements are simple play.

Later you can turn the box around so the child can crawl in. That way she can experience space and how to fit in (or not).

The box will be interesting for months. Even years. The child will then walk onto it, jump up and down. He will roll objects up and down the ramp extension if you have one (a good plank will do the job as well – safely attached). And you will be surprised what else your child comes up with when playing with, on and in the box.

The need to climb is a very strong one, and it is developmentally appropriate. It would be counter-productive to stop your child from doing it – instead try and provide something she can safely climb onto.

Other ideas we have used include:

  • Cups, bottles, baskets etc. – everything that can be stacked, things can go into it, some are bigger and some smaller. The discovery that two things are identical is an astonishing one as well – have more than one of something and see what happens in time.
  • Things that move – in our households cars have been the biggest hit for a long time. They will last forever, too.
  • Household items – no need to buy much, you can pick the safe things you have at home. This way also makes the baby feel like he really is part of the house – he gets to help with the real stuff!

„Do less. Observe more. Enjoy most.“ (Magda Gerber)

Have you learnt anything watching your baby play? What were the most exciting moments for you? What toys or play objects were among the favourites in your house?

We would love to hear you thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

Learning to live

In their play, babies 6-12 months acquire a range of skills we know are necessary for them later on in life. A range of movements is one of them, but there are other, less obvious skills our babies are working on – ones that might have a huge impact on how they deal with different tasks later on, things that might impact not only the way they play, but the way they socialize, work, discover, and deal with failure. We have observed two amazing things our boys are mastering when they play – how to struggle, and how to self-regulate. Both of these are vital, and both come along as part and parcel of free play.

Play as struggle

Observe your baby’s hard work and the constant practice of arm- and leg coordination to move around. He will try and get on hands and knees. He will swing back and forth. He will fall down. Most likely – he will not like this. He will face struggle. And frustration. YOU will face struggle and frustration too. Because you know how it could work. You could jump in and try and help. But you can’t teach him. And so you will have to learn to sit on your hands and watch. Watch your child struggle, and watch yourself struggle as well – notice that it is not only his journey, but also yours. Both together and separately, you are learning how to struggle. Each of you on a level that is suitable for your own stage of development.

Our first impulse might be to pick the baby up and hold him. Comfort him. Maybe walk him around a little. Feed him. Anything that will make him happy. Alternatively we could give him a chance to practice a bit more. To try a little harder. How? By sitting nearby saying: „You are really upset because you want to move forward.“ Well. Both ways the baby will eventually learn to move around. No matter how and when, right? Right?

Right. But what do I tell my child when I pick him up as soon as he struggles?

“You are struggling. You can’t achieve what you are trying to and that frustrates you. I don’t think you can do it right now so stay here with me and focus on something else.” You might not choose those words and surely this isn‘t the message you want to send. But this might be what your child is hearing in you helping him out of his dilemma too early.

Instead you can trust your child to handle not just the struggle, but also the frustration. To be able to deal with it. You also give yourself the chance to endure those moments. In the end they are not just part of the process of the gross motor development. They are part of a person’s life. The earlier we learn that anger and frustration are ok and not “bad” (http://everymomentisright.blogspot.nl/2011/09/my-feelings-are-real-or-day-all-hell.html) the earlier we will learn to handle and overcome them. Some of us, adults, are still working on that – and that’s ok. Maybe this is our chance to learn along with our children, that age-appropriate struggle and frustration are part of the journey?

And yes – in the end – all children will move around one day. Some earlier. Some later. They may be struggling with their journey, and we as parents are also learning not only to let them struggle sometimes – this is our learning experience as well. Wouldn’t it be easier to just pick them up and teach them about the world? Without all the struggle?

And some might enjoy a long stretch on their back in their play area. In fact when you carefully observe you will find out that children tend to go back and play while lying on their back. Because that is their safe place; their comfort place. They feel safe and secure in that position (if they have experienced the first months on their backs as relaxing and enjoyable). So when learning a new ability that takes times and effort it is important to rest. To take breaks and relax. Children are capable of doing so much more than we do. They naturally don‘t do more than is needed. Heinrich Jacoby actually said that children are appropriate. By that he meant – economical. They would not use any more muscles to sit or crawl than needed. IF they had the chance to develop all those milestones themselves. In their own time. At their own pace.

Play as self-regulation

Letting our children play as they want to, how long they want to, and letting them be the leader, we will soon notice that children know when to stop. They quickly learn when they have had enough and need a break, and you might see them going back to their most comfortable position, stopping the action for a moment. It might be tempting to step in and offer something to do right then – instead try to stop and observe. We are living in a world where we are constantly on the move, we have long since lost touch with the regulation nature offers us (who goes to bed when it gets dark?), but we still have the chance to listen to our own bodies. Our children know when they need time to recharge, let them do it. They need it to be able to go on. Here is another thing we might learn from babies – self-regulation.

Observing their play over a long period of time you will find that there are different phases. One of them is called the relaxing phase – where they relax from what they have just done. This can be rolling onto their back watching the shadows on the walls after practicing crawling for a while. This could also mean running around the table like crazy after having solved a puzzle (in older children obviously).

So when we see our crawling baby lie on their back, our walking baby crawl – that‘s ok. More than that – it is important. It shows that they still have abilities most of us adults have lost over the years.

What are the skills you think your baby is learning in their free play? We LOVE to hear your thoughts!

Nadine & Anna

The deal with baby walkers.

Most people we know have had a baby walker. Or a Bumbo seat. Or a swing. Or a bouncer. They have become so omnipresent in the lives of our growing babies, we don’t question them anymore – are they good? Do they support our babies development? Do we need them?

What’s the big deal with…

… baby walkers

Walkers have been banned in Canada since 2004 (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/americas/3609723.stm). Due to a high number of injuries walkers are no longer legally available in Canada, and anyone who has one is advised to ‘destroy it and throw it away so that it cannot be used again’ (http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/cps-spc/child-enfant/equip/walk-marche-eng.php). As far as we know, this is the only country so far to have banned walkers. Are they crazy? Is this too much? What do you think?

Some time ago there was a huge recall on Bumbo seats (http://www.usatoday.com/money/companies/story/2012-08-15/Bumbo-infant-floor-seat-recalled/57068158/1) – a safety issue, similar to the one often raised when assessing the safety of walkers and other devices that keep babies in a position they are not yet ready to be in by themselves (like standing or sitting). The solution to the Bumbo seat issue was adding straps, to keep the child even more securely placed in a position, which his skeleton and muscles are not yet ready to support by themselves.

The problem that is raised (the same that led to banning the use of walkers in Canada) is that these devices tend to be misused, placed on high surfaces, or that children are left in them without supervision and accidents happen all too often. While we agree these are the immediate dangers, we would suggest that the reason for abandoning equipment that places a child in a position into which she is not yet able to get independently is much more long-term.

So, while we cheer the Canadian government for banning the walkers, the idea that they be replaced by stationary activity centres is not exactly what we would have in mind when designing an appropriate environment where your child can thrive.

So really, why not?

First of all, why do we go for the walker? Because they are there. Because once our babies start crawling, their world expands, sometimes dangerously (playpens and gates are a great antidote to that). Because our neighbour’s child has one and seems so happy in it… There are probably many reasons why we go for the walkers, bouncers and swings.

And here is what their manufacturers tell us, just to make this decision even more difficult:

“Learning to walk has never been this much fun.”

“[…] activity walker will guide your baby towards his/her first steps…”

“maximises your baby’s development”

“keeps little ones entertained for hours and encourages their first steps”

Now, let’s have a look at those claims:

  • Baby walkers are usually recommended for the children between 6-12 months. This is when you will see your child learn to roll and crawl, move from crawling to sitting and back from sitting to crawling, learn to kneel, and then pull up to standing. All you need for this to happen is your baby and the floor. None of this happens in a walker.
  • A study reported in the Journal of Developmental Pediatrics (http://journals.lww.com/jrnldbp/Abstract/1999/10000/Effects_of_Baby_Walkers_on_Motor_and_Mental.10.asp) shows that out of 109 babies between 6 to 15 months, those who were placed in baby walkers sat, crawled, and walked later than those who were not. (That’s just for those who are concerned with the idea that baby walkers ‘maximise your baby’s development’ as suggested above, or that they will ‘guide your baby to their first steps’).
  • The same study suggests that due to the placement of legs in the activity centre – below the surface so that babies cannot see them – the use of baby walkers should be ‘conceptualized in terms of early deprivation’. Because this kind of experience prevents the baby from seeing his legs while moving them about, it does not provide a situation babies would be in normally.
  • How do we learn to walk? Let’s think for a moment about the claim that walkers can help your baby learn how to walk. To be able to walk, we need to be able to have both feet flat on the ground with no support. We need to be able to balance on one foot lifting the other one up. We need to be able to move forward, changing the position of our feet. None of this happens in a walker, where a baby is dangling in a seat with a whole lot of pressure on his spine rather than on his legs.
  • And finally, going back to Canadians – injuries… do we need to say more here?

So, is it worth it? We don’t think so, but we are fully aware that not all of you will agree.

While walkers in our opinion in fact hinder gross motor development, there is another problem that makes us want to ban them in all countries in the world. They hinder the ability for a child to engage in free and uninterrupted play.

But it‘s not just the walkers. There are more devices we think are rather cheaply bought coffee breaks for parents, than long-term enjoyable play items.

These are swings and baby door bouncers.

  • With the bouncers we don‘t want to go into the injuries and health and safety talks too deeply. A baby that is not yet able to sit up by herself, has no strength or sense of gravity for the kind of position s/he is in while in the door bouncer.
  • The spine is not supported enough, but bounced up and down uncontrollably. After your baby has been lying on her back or stomach for most of the time, seeing the world not just upside down but bouncing up and down in front of her might seem like fun. But it can result in even longer times of uneasiness and distress. The child can simply not process what has been happening and therefore will likely seek support from his parents. Which means longer and more intense times of looking for comfort after all the ‘fun’ spent bouncing. We are not sure if that is what parents, who “need a break“ and place their children in bouncers have in mind when doing so.

The real problem we see with bouncers and swings is that they take the chance of the baby to engage in independent playtime BY HIMSELF. They are simply devices we (adults) use to “have a minute“. To shower, do some cooking. Have a coffee.

All of this is fine since we are human beings and not 24/7 entertainers. But what we actually create is a spiral that makes us become exactly that entertainer. Because children grow. They grow out of swings and out of bouncers, out of walkers and activity centres. They need bigger and more age appropriate entertainment. We can‘t strap them into some seats or devices any more. They want fun. Fun that moves around and satisfies their need for action.

What they have never learned by then, is how to satisfy their need for play and entertainment themselves when Mommy says: “I am really tired and need to sit down for a second. I will be with you later, ok?“ or “I feel really sweaty after that night, I need a shower and then we can go outside.“

So yeah. Everyone has a swing. And yeah – it works. Parents can cook, have a coffee, take a shower without interruption. But these are moments we enjoy. And in all honesty – like with all moments, they don’t even last all that long. Instead we should make sure that we can create times for everyone to enjoy. At all ages. By allowing free play from the very start. The swing won’t always be there for our child, and the ability to independently play, create, explore and examine is the one thing we can allow our children to develop that will last them forever. We don’t even need to buy anything extra to do that – all we really need is some space, a lot of trust, and time.

Now, we know this was a very long read, but we would love to hear your thoughts!

Anna & Nadine

More reading:

http://www.dynamicchiropractic.com/mpacms/dc/article.php?id=15476&MERCURYSID=8380b16ce0247e70f6c705c50cc4a92f

http://www.vancouverspinecarecentre.com/childrencentre/23/

http://www.janetlansbury.com/2012/04/sitting-babies-up-the-downside/

http://consults.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/02/22/the-dangers-of-baby-walkers/